The History Behind Headstones

The History Behind Headstones

May 18, 2021

Memorials and gravestones come in all shapes and sizes, and they’ve come a long way since their early beginnings. The history of headstones stretches back over thousands of years, and they still remain an important way to memorialize lost loved ones, as seen in Phillipsburg, NJ cemeteries today. Here’s a brief guide to headstone history.

Early headstones

The history of headstones dates back to nearly 3,000 B.C., when Roman and Celtic cultures were at their height. The headstones you see today in places like Phillipsburg, NJ are much different than these early versions, which were commonly known as grave markers. They were single megalithic monuments that typically marked a large burial chamber rather than single graves. Since cemeteries did not exist during these times, people had burial plots near their homes and entire families were commonly buried together, with one large grave marker identifying the site.

Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures had unique burial traditions, too. They took honoring the dead to a new level, and important figures received entire burial tombs that were marked by monumental architecture, the most impressive of which were pyramids. Some of these pyramids remain today as lasting monuments to the figures they were built to honor.

Middle Ages

After the time of the Romans, when Christianity spread throughout the Western world, concepts of purgatory, hell and the afterlife had a great effect on burial customs. During the Dark Ages, burial grounds were moved from near the home to roadside lots. The increase in population during this time called for quicker burial rituals, and monuments began to be decorated with what today might be seen as “macabre” elements, including gothic skulls, cherubs and skeletons. Those less fortunate who couldn’t afford a headstone used wood, iron or brass crosses as grave markers.

Churchyard burials

Headstones as we know them today evolved greatly during the mid-17th century, when church graveyards became the resting place for many of the dead. Individual slate or sandstone headstones were placed in remembrance of individual people, and the tradition of memorial inscriptions on the stones began.

Victorian customs

The Victorian Era is generally seen as the precursor to modern funeral customs. Private cemeteries became widespread during this time, and grave markers became much more elaborate and personal. Simple grave markers evolved into complex monuments carved in stone, complete with statuary if you could afford it.

Modern customs

Today’s cemeteries and funeral customs draw from a long history of honoring the dead. Modern gravestones are typically made of slabs of granite, marble and stone that are placed upright at the head of a grave. Mausoleums and vaults have become easy and affordable ways of storing a person’s remains, complete with memorial inscriptions. Every choice that’s made for one’s final resting place is seen to have symbolic meaning, from the type of stone chosen for the monument to the decision to be cremated or embalmed.

Headstone history is filled with rich cultural and artistic traditions, reflecting changing customs throughout time. From burials in ancient times to today’s customs in Phillipsburg, NJ, every culture has changed funerary history in distinct ways. Contact Phillipsburg Memorial Company to discover more of the unique history behind headstones and other interesting funerary customs.

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